The Washington Times - October 4, 2009, 07:46PM

The Nationals, by all accounts, should have been itching for this miserable season to end at last and head home for the winter, erasing the past six months from their collective memories.

Something funny, though, happened over the last week. The Nats started winning, and baseball became fun once again.


So when the end of the road finally came today, no one wanted to accept it. What could have been a quick, run-through-the-motions finale at Turner Field instead turned into the longest game in the Nationals’ five years of existence, with these two teams delivering blows back and forth, unable to knock the other out.

Finally, in the 15th inning, Alberto Gonzalez lined a two-out single to center and brought Elijah Dukes home with the run that gave the Nats a thoroughly satisfying, 2-1 victory over the Braves in Game 162 of a season that featured plenty of lowlights but ended in glory.

“Game of the year,” said Jason Bergmann, one of five relievers who combined to toss nine scoreless innings. “No one gave up. We had timely hitting. Quality starting pitching. Great bullpen. Everybody played together as a team. No one quit. And it was probably the easiest game of the year to just quit.”

Thus, a Washington club that opened this season with seven straight losses closed it out with seven straight wins. No team in major league history had ever done that.

“I’m just very proud of them, and they should be proud of themselves,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “Under the circumstances, with our record and late in the year, to be playing with that kind of intensity, I think it’s really a credit to them.”

So a 2009 season that was at times maddening and at other times entertaining has come to an end. There are all sorts of questions now facing this club, and they need to start addressing them tomorrow. Among the most important decisions…

— Is Riggleman the permanent manager, or is it going to be someone else? And then, who among the coaching staff will be retained and who will be let go?

— Can the Nats lure a top free agent starting pitcher this winter? And if so, will they also bring Livan Hernandez back?

— Will they sign a veteran shortstop, go with Ian Desmond or leave Cristian Guzman there? If they go with someone else, will Guzman willingly move to second base?

— Is GM Mike Rizzo content enough with an offense that ranked ninth in the NL with a .258 average, 710 runs and 156 home runs, or does he feel the need to add another bat? And if so, where? Right field? Second base?

— How will Stephen Strasburg perform in the Arizona Fall League, and will it be enough to convince the Nats to put the No. 1 draft pick in the major league rotation next spring despite never throwing an official pitch in the minors?

— Who’s next year’s No. 1 pick? For all the hype Bryce Harper is getting, the Nats aren’t necessarily sold on the 16-year-old catcher as the top player in the country. Unlike with Strasburg, this won’t be a slam dunk choice.

Obviously, there will be plenty of time to address all those issues and more in the weeks and months to come. For now, I’m packing up and getting ready for what should be an exciting postseason. Ben and I will be hitting all the upcoming rounds, but we’ll both keep an eye on all Nats news and keep you all posted.

Thanks for reading us all season. Enjoy the Hot Stove League!